I found The Memory of Photography – (Bate, 2010) very interesting and raised some pertinent questions and perhaps answers inside my head for my own photography and photography in general going forwards.
The photograph was seen historically as infinite – an indefinite memory or recording of a scene. Now, even though digital is in my opinion more resilient than analogue was/is, the photograph is often seen as finite because photographs are printed relatively rarely in typical people’s workflows nowadays unfortunately and it is mainly seen only on screen.
Yes, a photograph can wear away or be lost or damaged but it usually requires deliberate intervention for this to happen. An example of this was the project Rubbings (Strand, 2015) in the exhibition Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time (Strand, 2015). Alternatively, more generally with limited edition prints, the prints are made intentionally only a few times, presumably for commercial reasons. Sometimes the negatives are themselves destroyed to preserve the integrity of the limited edition prints as was the case with P.H. Emerson early on in photography’s history.
If you take a photograph at ‘face value’ literally, for what it could be considered as a permanent record, while forgetting momentarily about it being (academically) finite, then you can start to see the unique role photographs have and may well continue to serve in history and life. That role would be, a tool, which expresses what is seen in any scene. This tool can be used in many ways, with the most obvious one being a memory/record of a scene from one person – (the photographer) to another (either the photographer themselves or to share with others).
I would suggest it is when the photograph plays on itself (within the role of permanence on a flat surface) that it begins to become a paradox. As the photograph is a meta entity and yet records things which have the potential to be records themselves of past events, each memory (photograph) preserves another memory.
These memories are ‘artificial’ in that they aren’t stored in our own brains. Perhaps, we now rely on artificial memory so much that natural memory isn’t as sharp as it once was. Photographs serve as a major source of artificial memory and yet it is linked strongly to natural memory in form: ‘All the forms of auxiliary apparatus which we have invented for the improvement or intensification of our sensory functions are built on the same model as the sense organs themselves’ – (Freud, 1925). It is no surprise then, why we default to photography as a perceived form of remembering as it also has the potential to capture more more of a moment’s detail than a natural memory. As well as this, because of its potential permanence, less is ultimately forgotten. These artificial memories in the form of photographs can be personal like in family albums but also collective like with photographs of famous historical events. Photography nowadays, in archives both analogue and digital has affected our actual memory significantly with private collections but also collectively with famous photographs. It is like we have singular mystic writing-pads but also more pertinently a collective Mystic writing-pad in the ether of media, which incidentally is growing at a rapid pace.
My mind was also moving at a rapid pace after reading about this! I started thinking if the aide-memoire (artificial memory) was taking over and becoming more prevalent than the memory, the aide-mémoire was becoming the reality. Then would the person/people using the aide-mémoire be living in a kind of virtual reality? Photographs for example, could be the instruments for another world. Another question I raised to myself was: ‘Why is memory and the methods for recording memories so important to us?’ You could theoretically live a life, where everything was in the present or looking forwards. Instead, we tend to naturally gravitate towards collecting memories and since its invention, photography was and still is seen, by the majority, as the way of recording these precious memories. With the increasing technological advancements in artificial memory archives, will people rely on their natural memory much at all? Memory is one thing people naturally ‘cling’ to but it might still be affected by these artificial memory archives of photographs and other forms of media. Perhaps, because of this attachment to natural memory, when digital photography started to take over, there became present a lot of controversy over the validity of photography going forwards. This was because of the amount of manipulation possible ‘after the fact’, with digital photography. If the subsequent photographs were affected internally, with processing technologies, distrust could become a factor by part of the eventual viewer. Nowadays (just about), a famous photograph expresses the truth of a collective social remembrance. This is in comparison to: ‘The family album expresses the truth of social remembrance.’ – (Bate, 2010), where the social remembrance is ‘limited’ to the family. I would say with digital photography in particular there is increasing distrust towards a famous (or personal) photograph expressing the truth of a collective (or singular) social remembrance because of sometimes there being manipulation after the fact. This is magnified because of the wild scale of digital media consumption these days.
Another reason this distrust may grow amongst certain social groups and generations would be for the reason: because photography historically was only specific to a limited number of countries and of course a certain time, largely these ‘memories’ in the form of photographs presumably only apply to certain groups of people. The culture of the artificial memories in the form of photographs (probably Western) helps Western people identify with these memories more strongly.
‘an archive not a question of the past’ – (Bate, 2010) but rather, ‘It is a a question of the future, the question of a response, a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow’ – (Derrida, 1995). This goes back to the concept of ‘late photography’ as suggested by Campany (2003) which I looked at in: ‘Late Photography’. Meanwhile, it could possibly point to a reason the Western countries were so powerful when they had a monopoly over photography’s history. As Bate (2010) remarks: ‘the ability to inscribe events, descriptions and traces is a site of social power; a means for some social groups to impose their will over others’. This for me shows how powerful any genre of photography was historically and the implications for this on not only cultures utilising these resources but also those cultures, who have, more recently made photography more integral in their history.
While I agree partially as Bate suggests: it is true that ‘Artificial Memories create uncertainty for the human faculty of memory’ so we ‘no longer trust our memory as our own’ – (Bate, 2010), overall I would say without the images as a meta-archive for collective memory anyway, the world would be less conscientious about its history, even if this history has been somewhat biased. Applied to landscape, postcards advertise places a lot of people haven’t been to yet the people feel like they’ve been to these places themselves.
Photography (digital) behaves as: such is the plethora nowadays of undiscovered yet familiar records (photographs) of different places on the internet or in exhibitions, it is like we have a permanent visual memory bank waiting to be tapped into – not unlike our long-term natural memory, except that it is accessible whenever – it doesn’t need to be triggered to be accessed. Like our long-term memory, photographs, while always being stored, can be mistrusted due to ’steering’ of the truth by protagonists of photography. Postcard views in particular, make us feel like we’ve been there before. Popular internet search engines are readily accessible.
Photographs with some historical context within them are powerful, they can trigger involuntary memories. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean direct records of the historical moment but rather can also be renditions or interpretations of famous historical memories. Alternatively, the photographer could make interpretations of childhood memories so the reenactments are personal. I could try ‘twisting’ photographs I make to act as triggers for cultural or personal memories which means something socially or personally (for myself) respectively. This reminded me of the work of Tom Hunter where he draws upon inspiration from other historical artists: ‘The restaging of historical painterly tableaux in a contemporary setting for which Hunter is perhaps best known’ – (Slyce, n.d.). For example with Death of Colotti (Hunter, 2009), he ‘draws on Delacroix’s mammoth tableaux Death of Sardanapalus, 1827′ – (Slyce, n.d.) for inspiration.
Bate, D. (2010). The Memory of Photography. [Online] Taylor and Francis Online. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609?scroll=top&needAccess=true [Accessed 2 Nov. 2015].
Delacroix, E. (1827). Death of Sardanapalus. [Oil on Canvas] Paris: Louvre.
Derrida (1995). In. Bate, D. (2010). The Memory of Photography. [Online] Taylor and Francis Online. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609?scroll=top&needAccess=true [Accessed 2 Nov. 2015].
Freud, S. (1925). In. Bate, D. (2010). The Memory of Photography. [Online] Taylor and Francis Online. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17540763.2010.499609?scroll=top&needAccess=true [Accessed 2 Nov. 2015].
Hunter, T. (2009). Death of Colotti. [Photograph] Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/unheralded-stories-series/ [Accessed 2 nov. 2015].
Slyce, J. (n.d.). In. Hunter, T. (2009). Unheralded Strories Series. Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/unheralded-stories-series/ [Accessed 2 nov. 2015].
Strand, C. (2015). Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time. [Exhibition] 29 Apr – 6 Jun 2015. Grimaldi Gavin, London.